The Story Behind Every Song On Squid’s New Album Bright Green Field
A couple years ago, the UK art-rock quintet Squid started building a ton of buzz in their homeland, thanks to the simultaneous idiosyncrasy and infectiousness of their early singles. They were part of a new generation of exciting English bands, working with Speedy Wunderground’s Dan Carey and pushing the outer limits of contemporary rock music. The well-deserved hype garnered them a record deal with Warp. They’ve been gearing up to release their debut album Bright Green Field for several months now, and today it’s finally here.
On some level, Bright Green Field makes good on the promise of Squid’s older releases, but it also confounds and expands that promise. There are songs like “Paddling” and “Boy Racers” and “Pamphlets” that have the urgency, catchiness, and catharsis we’ve come to expect from this band. But at the same time, the group gets weirder and weirder, crafting an album that is littered with strange sounds and plot twists. Take the aforementioned “Boy Racers” for example — it’s one of the more direct and accessible songs on the album, before it collapses into a long droning second half built on a synthesizer and a medieval instrument.
Surprises abound on Bright Green Field, and in many ways it’s a vibrant, visceral album, with clever arrangements and punchy melodies. At the same time, the band’s already talked about how they wound up making a bleaker record than they would’ve anticipated originally. While the album itself doesn’t necessarily catalogue literal scenes or directly respond to the world around us, it’s clearly music that was made in unsettling times. In each scream-along refrain or instrumental build-up, Squid might be offering some kind of release, but their sound has only grown more bugged-out and anxious.
Squid are very much one organism — Ollie Judge, Anton Pearson, Louis Borlase, Arthur Leadbetter, and Laurie Nankivell write all the music together, and all these knotted, shape-shifting songs primarily come out of the interplay that happens when these five musicians get into a room together. That results in a lot of ideas and sonic information across Bright Green Field. It’s not a safe debut. It’s a long, complex album that takes some time to wade into before you can really process everything that’s going on. But Squid have made an album that is addicting and entrancing enough that it pulls you back over and over, making you want to revisit their world, a place that is full of both adventure and apocalypse.
Ahead of Bright Green Field‘s arrival, we caught up with Judge and Pearson over Zoom and they walked us through each song on the album. Now that you can hear it all for yourself, read along below for the stories behind Squid’s challenging, rewarding debut.
1. “Resolution Square” / 2. “G.S.K.”
The album opens with an ambient track that kicks right into “G.S.K.”
ANTON PEARSON: “Resolution Square” is a mixture. All the sounds in there are built from sound recordings we had made separately. It’s a symbolic thing of us collecting sounds and bringing them together for the start of the record, which is how we recorded the record, in a way. But the main thing was driven by having something that was disorienting and woozy and swirling and then having that clang sound of “G.S.K.” coming through.
I looked up “GSK” and found there was a pharmaceutical company in the UK called that.
JUDGE: That’s exactly what it references, but it’s not a comment on pharmaceutical companies. It’s the building that, basically in the journey from Bristol — where I live — to London, you go over this concrete Brutalist flyover and the first skyscraper building you see is the GSK building. When I was doing that journey once, we were supposed to withdraw from the European Union on that day, and everything seemed very bleak. I looked up during the journey and saw the really monolithic building and thought it was quite depressing.
There are various cultural or political images that appear on the album, but you also talked about the songs taking place in a sort of imagined dystopian cityscape. With the album starting with this journey from Bristol to London, is there a certain part of like, entering that imagined cityscape inspired by aspects of London?
PEARSON: To a certain degree. I suppose we used imagining a city as a way of comprehending eclecticism and the collective nature — what we like about cities is that it gives a space for anything to happen, but it still feels like one place, which I think is very special. But yeah it’s definitely grounded in our experiences to a certain degree. We’re imagining something British, and heavily influenced by the cities we’ve spent a lot of time in. One of those is London, but it’s not a reimagining of London — elements of London have made it into our heads.
JUDGE: All the sci-fi books that that we’ve taken influence from, they describe places in such a specific way that it builds a crystal-clear image of that city but it’s also never a city that’s in real life. You can imagine it so clearly but they never pin a name on it.
Right, this song specifically was influenced by Ballard?
JUDGE: Yeah, it’s Concrete Island. Which actually does name the city that it’s set in, but yeah.
During quarantine you all would pass ideas back and forth and sort of let one another take them in different directions and see where it went. What was the divide between material that was made that way vs. stuff you made together beforehand? You’ve been playing some of these for a while, like “Paddling” and “Pamphlets.”
PEARSON: I suppose it’s difficult to measure. All the songs were changing to some degree right up until a couple of weeks before we started recording. There were little bits of people floating new ideas around, “Let’s have this in on this track.” Everything was up for grabs until the end, nothing was set in stone. We didn’t know exactly what the album tracklist was going to be until quite later on. That period where we were separated and sending ideas to each other via the internet has had an influence on the whole album. To give a more straightforward answer to your question, I guess about half of it was written, in terms of the starts or the majority of the track, before that lockdown period, and then there were a couple that were coming right before that. Tracks like “Peel St.” were completely fresh, they weren’t even influenced by the time we were separated. They were the time we had together just before the album.
I know you are all very collaborative as a group in general. When you are together in a room, does it tend towards jamming and seeing what happens, or people bring in germs of an idea and see where it goes?
JUDGE: It’s usually a case of get in a room and just play. Sometimes someone has a riff or a synth patch or something. We kind of go from there. It’s usually a small idea that’s not fully-formed and we just bash away at it.
Ollie, you write most of the lyrics. How does that interact with the more collaborative songwriting process? Do you tell them what’s on your mind? Or you write later and arrangements go back and forth?
JUDGE: We always do the music first, and then either me, Anton, or Louis try to fit lyrics around. It’s a back and forth thing. We write the music and then fit lyrics on top and then fit the structure of the track back to the lyrics, and it goes back and forth. We usually figure it out when we play it live, which hasn’t been a thing, recently.
This was inspired by the movie A Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
JUDGE: We were into thinking about the dystopian thread running through the album. I was reading a book called Ice by Anna Kavan. It was the first book I’ve ever read where the narrator is incredibly unreliable. Whatever the narrator says, you don’t know whether it’s true or not, and it creates a fun way of reading — you fill in the blanks how you see them instead of an author doing that for you. Around the same time I was reading that, my friend recommended A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and it was very much the same unreliable narrator formula. It wasn’t really plot-driven, and you didn’t really know what’s going on. I thought that was a very weird way of storytelling and I really latched onto it. I still don’t know whether I really liked the film or not, but I kept thinking about it for weeks. We started writing the song in Margate, on the coast of England. We invited Martha Skye Murphy to come down and she started wailing on it. We just kind of got to know her a bit, I think some of us hadn’t met her before.
When “Narrator” came out, you talked about how Martha’s perspective further complicated the song, with her pointing out that the unreliable narrator was sort of this pernicious male figure most often. When she came in, was there a conversation about what the song was about?
JUDGE: That was the thing. I’ve never written lyrics with anyone collaboratively before. I had the idea to do it about an unreliable narrator, but it didn’t even cross my mind that the usual trope of an unreliable narrator is a dominating male. I had some Skype calls — this was before corona, so this was when Skype was still the big daddy of video conferencing. [Laughs] We did some Skyping, almost writing sessions, just getting to know each other as well. It was really nice, and then she brought, “Most of these unreliable narrators are male, why don’t I play the female?” That was the narrative from there. We didn’t really set anything in stone until we recorded it. Then she just started screaming like I’ve never heard anyone scream before.
“Narrator” is one of these long multi-part songs you guys occasionally do, like “The Cleaner.” When these particular songs develop into their final form, how much of that is these growing into this long, cresting thing through playing it out or arrangement, moving different pieces around?
PEARSON: I think “Narrator,” we always played it pretty long. Sometimes we have a tendency to have that really linear structure. That’s definitely the case with “The Cleaner,” we just kept writing outros and they felt like they all fit on to each other so we ended up just keeping them all in. There’s a little bit of that with “Narrator,” but I think we’re learning to be better songwriters as things go on, and not think about things too linearly all the time. With “Narrator” I think that works because we wanted it to be a thing where you think you’ve reached the most intense point and you haven’t — over and over again. Until you find some sort of climax where it’d be horrible to go any further.
4. “Boy Racers”
Another long song, in a very different way. I was reading an interview where one of you said the record could’ve been more direct, or poppier, if not for last year giving you the time and space for experimentation. “Boy Racers” is almost a direct dichotomy — it’s one of the catchier, more propulsive rock songs and then has this totally zonked outro.
JUDGE: We started writing that maybe three weeks before the first UK lockdown. We were getting it ready to play out on this tour that eventually got rescheduled and rescheduled and rescheduled again. A classically Squid thing, we tried out about five different endings on it. There was an epic, euphoric rock ending, one where a krautrock beat came back in. We just left it up until the day, really, to see what we’d do on the end of it. We did end up recording a drumbeat over the end of it, but we thought it would be more fitting to let this siren synth gradually rise for the last three minutes. It’s definitely one of my favorite points of the album. It’s the loudest point on the album, as well.
That synth thing was also partially this medieval instrument, right? Something literally called a racket.
JUDGE: We just sampled Arthur’s dad playing a note in a few different pitches and Dan Carey put that into his computer and mapped it along with Arthur’s synth, so Arthur’s synth also controlled the pitch of the racket sample in tandem with the patch that he had in his synth. It was medieval meets Prophet synthesizer.
PEARSON: It’s the ultimate father and son combo. [Laughs] Imagine you’re born in the future but your dad was born in medieval times, that’s what it sounds like.
Speaking of dystopian sci-fi, this passage really sounded like that influence to me. When you were drawn to those moments, was it leaning in that direction of this imagined city or some form of clarification/catharsis for how dystopian things generally felt in the real world?
PEARSON: I don’t think we wanted to directly parallel things that were happening in the real world. They definitely have an influence, even if that influence is turning us on to certain types of literature and films that then feed into the album. Maybe there’s something more to be said about that than there is about whether we feel like we’re living in dystopia so we wrote this record. I think we just wanted the whole thing to celebrate the multi-faceted nature of how we work.
JUDGE: It does kind of come back to that thing, when you’re reading a book or watching a film that doesn’t explicitly tell you what year it’s set in, or in what country or city. It leaves more for the imagination. It could be 2021. It could be the year 3000. It’s leaving the audience to fill in the gaps.
This song was introduced with having themes of consumerism; to me it has this reference to rote work culture.
PEARSON: They’re definitely huge themes. It’s the oldest track on the album, the one we’ve been playing for the longest amount of time. It’s evolved from its early days. Towards the end of 2019, we had started to play it less and less in sets, because generally speaking we favor playing new songs over old songs. We’d stopped working on it too much, and it was only in the lead-up to the album where we wanted to give it a good go and inject new life into it. It’s me and Louis who sing on it. The way we write lyrics is quite separate, so especially on this one we think of the lyrics as our instrumental parts in a way. We just let each other get on with them without trying to micromanage them until the later stages.
But I suppose the major themes of it are uncertainty of coming of age, finding yourselves in new capitalist work environments. The lyrics started to stem from The Wind In The Willows. I think it was quite an interesting perspective on social anxiety and wanting to try new things and wanting to fit in but then also this understanding about what really brings you joy in life. I think it just paints a really beautiful picture of enjoying simple things and not getting really excited about the next thing, next thing, next thing, until you crash. At that time of our lives, in our early twenties when we started writing, everyone was kind of finding their feet about where they lie in that chase or whatever it is. Some people really want to keep advancing up another level, and some people don’t want to advance too much because they find joy in other places.
The Wind In The Willows is more of a children’s book. That seems like one of the only moments on the album influenced by something more innocent.
PEARSON: The theme of Squid is inconsistency I suppose. [Laughs] Yeah, I suppose there’s no one rule. We left it quite late, on purpose, in terms of coming up with what we wanted the album to say. We wanted an open approach to creativity. Especially in the early and middle stages of songwriting. There are elements shared with other tracks, especially in terms of the relationship between work and play and themes of consumerism. It just came from a funny source.
6. “Documentary Filmmaker”
This was written about a visit to a family member on an anorexia ward at a hospital. The title comes from the idea that there was also this documentary that had been filmed at this ward. It seems it would be so strange to be visiting a loved one and how this had sort of been a story, for somebody else. But then otherwise I was thinking about having experienced comparable situations, it’s almost out of body. Like it’s so disorienting that you can almost start to see it through the lens of someone coming and making a film.
JUDGE: I’m just thinking a bit now… When I used to visit there every day or so, when you know there’s a documentary that’s been filmed there — I’ve watched it, and I think it did a pretty good job of informing people about anorexia, which I think there is still so much work to be done, so much stigma around it. Once I watched that documentary, I went in every day and I thought, “If I was doing a documentary, I would do this, or film this person to get the proper story.” It’s quite a strange thing. Nothing in my life, nothing I’ve been involved in, has been a national documentary viewed by millions of people. You do kind of go into the mindset of a director, almost, when you are around something that has been documented on a national scale. That was the influence on that track.
This was one of the songs that had some outside friends playing, with the horn arrangement. Lewis Evans from Black Country, New Road is on the album. Obviously there’s this thriving scene, the Speedy Wunderground universe, the Windmill. Did you feel like kindred spirits with these bands from the start or was it a loose collection that started to cohere as things went on?
PEARSON: It’s kind of a difficult question to answer I suppose. Black Country, New Road, we all think they’re really cool and amazing musicians and that was the main reason we ended up working with Lewis. He’s an amazing musician and a nice guy as well. It wasn’t in any way a statement of like, we’re a unit and we’re doing something together. Lewis lives in London and he’s really good at saxophone so we asked him to play. All the musicians we asked to play on the record, they all come from different backgrounds and they’re all amazing. We felt so lucky and privileged to work with them.
You’re in your mid-twenties now, so in 2010 you would’ve been young teenagers. Was there a particular significance to that year?
PEARSON: More than writing about ourselves from that perspective, it was actually in relation to a building development project that happened in South London. I suppose this one is quite far removed from our own experiences and it’s more about… a slightly vicarious experience. Louis and I wrote the lyrics for that. We’re the two vocalists and we wrote the lyrics completely separately, about two different things, so that was an interesting process. Quite fun. It ended up being about two, we felt, very important and very serious subjects that we hadn’t really tackled before.
8. “The Flyover”
What was the role of a transitional instrumental track at this point in the album? Do the last three tracks feel like their own chapter?
JUDGE: We thought a lot about where that would be. Originally, Laurie scored it for an intro to “Documentary Filmmaker.” We only realized when we recorded everything that it was a really, really intense listening experience. There wasn’t much room for a breather. We kind of started thinking about the importance of having moments for listeners to lay back a bit and not be hit with this intense wall of sound for 50 minutes. So we took it from the intro from “Documentary Filmmaker,” which is a nice mid-album breather in some regards, and moved it later. We thought we needed another one before “Peel St.” started, because that’s just like being hit in the head a couple times with a printer that doesn’t work. [Laughs]
9. “Peel St.”
I was going to ask about that sound, it does sound like a piece of malfunctioning retro machinery.
JUDGE: That’s just Arthur’s fast fingers on the keyboard. [Laughs] I don’t know how he does it.
PEARSON: That track was really nice to write, because it came from the first few days of us being together again after being separate. We just felt happy and excited to be together and writing music. There was a lot of energy there, and this song was the result of that energy. We were writing this in a pub, and they were painting the walls outside. I remember coming out and feeling so sorry for them because we literally played that rhythm for like three whole days straight. We were really excited about this one little track. Imagine listening to that all day, it must’ve been horrible. But we were having a good time.
Is Peel St. a specific place?
JUDGE: Peel St. is a street in Kensington in London, which is a very wealthy area of London. That book I was talking about earlier, Ice, by Anna Kavan — it’s the street where she overdosed on heroin and died on. Always cheery subjects with us. [Laughs]
When you mentioned that book earlier I was thinking about the lyrics here and wondering if there was going to be a connection.
JUDGE: I read Ice and thought it was just an incredible book. It’s about that relationship between your art and your personal life, and how a lot of writing about her is more about the troubled nature of her personal life rather than her literature, which in my eyes is way more interesting than that. The song is kind of written from her perspective of being tired of being written about as a troubled artist, and wanting to be admired for her art.
You’ve mentioned before that the older songs are often inhabiting characters. Was there a particular reason you wanted to go back to that place here?
PEARSON: It felt very urgent and important to have that track on the album because of the chronology of when it came. Then definitely the literary themes, though there is a real life character element to it, which maybe isn’t followed up too much on other places on the album. The themes of the book definitely fit in with a lot of the other things we were talking about. From the early stages of writing, we knew it was going to be on the album.
10. “Global Groove”
We’ve talked about how you weren’t trying to directly comment on the world or current events, but this one has some pointed lines, about watching your “favorite war” on TV, and then a sitcom — it reminded me of the celebrity chefs bit in “Sludge.” I was wondering if there’s a general theme of narcotizing media effects that you are interested in.
JUDGE: For me anyway, it’s a subject that’s unavoidable at the moment really. The celebrity chefs was more anecdotal — I wrote that because I think we all really like watching videos of Gordon Ramsay on YouTube. [Laughs] I got to a point where I was in bed at three in the morning still watching funny compilations of Gordon Ramsay and I thought, this is too much, my phone is having a detrimental effect on my sleeping pattern. “Global Groove” is a more serious reflection on that feeling, and growing up in the 24 hours news cycle and just being surrounded by bad news. I guess we’re not the first generation to grow up with televised wars. But seeing footage on the news for the first time when you’re like, seven years old — that weird video game drone bomb footage, that sticks with you.
I remember being a kid seeing that footage of the Gulf War, yeah. This song has an appropriately heavy sound, mournful when the horns come in. But the spoken word part at the end, this sequence about planes, brought me back to being 10 years old and watching 9/11 happen on TV.
JUDGE: It’s one of those moments in modern history that you remember exactly what you were doing when you found out about something. My dad told me. I was only six or seven I think. He told me and I laughed and he said, “No, it’s not funny, don’t laugh.” It was the most serious I’d ever seen my dad. It was a formative experience that burns into your memory. After that, it being such a serious issue at such a young age. You start making up what you think is going on in the world, and you start thinking passenger planes going over are jet fighters coming to bomb you. It was the naïveté of world events when you’re such a young child.
So in this “Global Groove,” the penultimate track, you’re sort of going back to this origin moment to how a lot of our generation were psychologically formed. You’re going back to the start of this mindset that might lead to a lot of the other tracks. How does that interact with “Pamphlets” as the conclusion?
PEARSON: In terms of track ordering, it was more musically led than thematically led. We had similar conversations to the ones we have when we’re structuring sets. How we carry energy, continue certain elements, or take breaks from certain elements. There’s something quite nice about the fall that happens there — although thematically it’s not really about joy, “Pamphlets” is quite a joyful track. I supposed it’s also forward-looking rather than backward-looking. I think that was the thinking. This tumble then this run at the end. It’s a long album. Working out ways of carrying that energy, maintaining interest, and avoiding aural exhaustion is really important and something we were really aware of. We were just trying to do our best in that regard.
At one point this image of pamphlets flying through the door again felt of a piece with something like “Sludge” and “Global Groove,” this information overload.
JUDGE: This is another one of the old ones on the album. Lyrically, for me — I don’t want to say it’s a throwaway, but I didn’t really mull over the lyrics too much. We played it for the first or second time at Glastonbury and it was two in the morning or something and all our friends were at the gig having a good time and I think I just sung the lyrics and thought, “Everyone had such a good time, I don’t want to do anything else, I don’t want to tinker anymore.” So the lyrics have stayed the same. As Anton said, it’s not a very hopeful track but it looks forward and pokes fun at this right-wing propaganda. With the physical and tangible nature of it being about things that come through the door, it’s saying there’s more outside if you educate yourself and actually want to be happier. Thinking about it now, it’s got flecks of hopefulness in it. And there’s definitely a lot of sonic hopefulness to it as it reaches its sort of epic conclusion.
You’ve also said the record became a bit darker and bleaker than you might’ve previously expected. When you say “Pamphlets” looks forward, do you think that’s indicative of where Squid might go?
PEARSON: I suppose it is. We knew from quite an early stage this was going to be the last track on the album. When we were trying out different orders, a few things stayed where they were — “G.S.K.” stayed at the start, “Pamphlets” stayed at the end. When we were making decisions about what elements to bring out at the end, I remember Dan saying that the very last part of the album should really sound like us five more than anything else. I thought that was so nice of him to say that. It was such a cool thing to aim for. We’re always up for trying new things and getting elements from absolutely anywhere. We weren’t really at all bothered about making songs we were going to be able to recreate perfectly live. But it was nice to have that feeling at the end, landing back in at a rehearsal room or a gig with us five playing.
JUDGE: At that point, we’re all playing so hard. Not one of us is sitting out. It’s a nice end to the album, we’re all doing something. [Laughs]
Bright Green Field is out now via Warp.